Road limit compromise in Wisconsin leaves few happy
In Wisconsin legal parlance, they’re called "implements of husbandry." Farmers call them tractors, tillage equipment, planters, sprayers, hay choppers and combines. But after new legislation was passed on road limits this spring, they also could become "implements of frustration."
The reason: New state legislation actually increases gross weight limits by 15% to 23,000 lb. per axle, or 92,000 lb. total if tractor-implement combinations reach specific front-to-rear axle lengths. But that weight often doesn’t come close to recognizing the scale of modern farm equipment. A fully loaded combine might exceed the limit; a triple-axle manure tanker certainly does.
"For years, there was a misunderstanding that farm equipment was exempt from road limits," says Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF). "That’s not true. Farm equipment was never exempt from weight limits."
It all came to a head in 2010. Local, township officials in central Wisconsin were worried that the large tankers were tearing up local roads, and they called on law enforcement to stop and weigh farm equipment. Subsequently, a manure tanker in Marathon County was stopped, weighed and cited.
All you-know-what broke loose. Farmer advocates, such as WFBF and the state Dairy Business Association (DBA), rushed to the Wisconsin Legislature for relief. What resulted was a 33-page bill signed into law this past April that everyone acknowledges is a compromise, at best.
Even so, the law is still too complex and isn’t understood by farmers, local government officials or even law enforcement, says Laurie Fischer, DBA’s director of dairy policy. "The bill itself references seven other state statutes," she says. "We’ve had three attorneys in the same room, and even they couldn’t agree on what some provisions mean."
The kicker is the 92,000-lb. weight limit isn’t all that much when you hook-up a three-axle, 7,400-gal. manure tanker to a tractor powerful enough to pull it. Fully loaded, the tractor and tanker could weigh more than 125,000 lb.
In tests conducted by the University of Wisconsin, such a tractor-tanker combination was 51,700 lb. empty. Because the tractor-tanker measured just 40’ from front axle to rear, it’s legal load limit was 84,000 lb.
Subsequently, that meant the tanker could only legally carry 3,200 gal., assuming manure weighs 10 lb. per gallon. In other words, to not exceed the load limit, the tanker could be filled to less than 45% of its capacity. That, in turn, would double the number of trips and time required to move the same volume of manure compared to hauling full loads.
The law does provide local units of government the right to issue permits that would allow the weight limits to be exceeded. But farmers, custom harvesters and manure haulers will have to get a permit for each tractor-implement combination they’re wishing to use. Plus, they’ll need to get a permit from each unit of government whose roads they travel.
Even forage harvesters, if they weigh more than 46,000 lb. or are shorter than 10' from front to rear axle, can exceed new weight limits.
For a large farm operating equipment on a state road, in two counties and three townships, that would mean they need to obtain six permits for each combination of equipment each year.
Farmers and custom operators view that as a regulatory nightmare. But it boils down to the fact that Wisconsin is a "local control" state, meaning laws should be enforced as close to the people as possible.
Richard Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, puts it simply: "We don’t want the state or counties issuing permits for town roads that we are responsible for maintaining."
Wisconsin has approximately 62,000 miles of roads in its 1,257 townships, which averages out to be about 50 miles in each township. Each township board will now have to decide whether they will give blanket exemptions, offer no permits or issue permits and under what circumstances. The law prohibits governing entities from charging fees for the permits.
In fairness, townships have limited budgets to maintain roads, and their ability to raise more is limited, if not capped, in the current no-new-taxes environment.
The average township has about $300,000 in annual spending authority for road maintenance, Stadelman says. Rebuilding a township road costs $150,000 to $200,000 per mile, meaning the average township in Wisconsin can re-build less than two of its 50 miles of roads per year, even if the entire road budget goes to reconstruction.
If Wisconsin is going to compete ... its infrastructure must be modernized
That’s hardly adequate, since roads need frequent maintenance. Under normal use and an 80,000 lb. road limit, roads need to be reconstructed every 35 to 40 years in Wisconsin’s harsh, freeze-and-thaw climate, Stadelman says.
If you exceed the 80,000 lb. limit by 20%, road life drops in half. Exceed it by 30%, it drops to perhaps 12 years and exceed it by 40%, it drops to less than 10 years.
This tractor-tanker combination measures 40' from front axle to rear, limiting its legal load to 84,000 lb.,which is only 45% of the tanker’s capacity.
Full-enforcement of the law goes into effect Jan. 15, 2015. This fall, state law enforcement only has the authority to issue warnings to over-weight implement violators, other than manure tankers.
Over-weight tankers can be fined 15¢ per pound for the first offense and 18¢ per pound on second and later offenses. So a tanker that is 16,000 lb. over-weight faces fines of $2,400 to $2,880.
DBA plans to go back to the legislature next session to seek fixes, Fischer says. More funding for local roads must be found, she adds. If Wisconsin is to compete nationally and globally, its infrastructure must be modernized.
WFBF’s Zimmerman also says the law is far from perfect. But it does offer some relief. "At least now, farmers will be able to get equipment out to the field without loading it on a low boy to stay legal," he says.
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For more details on Wisconsin’s roads, a weight limit chart and equipment dimension limits, visit: www.DairyToday.com/ Wisconsin_roads